If I had to pick a favorite genre, I’d have to pick historical fiction. So it made sense to start off my new series on literary genres with my favorite!
Each month, I’ll write about a different genre: what defines it, what challenges come up, common literary devices, and some additional resources to help you on your journey.
And like I said, today we’re starting with historical fiction! I love nothing more than getting swept away to a time period different from my own. Getting immersed in a time and place that I’m not familiar with is one of my favorite things as a reader and in fact, one of my favorite parts of reading! Historical fiction does this well, by bringing the reader along for a journey in a time we’ll never experience.
They always make me wish time-travel was a reality.
So what IS historical fiction anyways??
The most basic definition is a made-up story that takes place in a different time period than the modern day. A more interesting definition is a made up story that takes you to a different time period and helps you imagine being there yourself while also learning more about people who lives years and years ago.
As you can imagine, writing about history in a creative, interesting, and relevant way can be tricky. Not only do you still have the general requirements of intriguing your readers, helping them relate to the characters, and pulling them along to the book’s finale, but you also have a little added pressure: historical context.
Historical fiction is one of a few genres where research is imperative for a believable story. And while you don’t need to information dump to get your readers in the mood, it’s important to do the work to make your story believable.
Here are a few tips for research, writing about a time period you’ve never experienced, and how to create empathy from your readers.
Huge Fact Dumps Aren’t Necessary
You don’t need as many facts as you think you do. Only research what is vital to your story, and helps set the scene in your reader’s mind. Research can be a long rabbit hole of curiosity, and getting off track can be fun and even productive. But just because you discover an interesting tidbit doesn’t mean you must include it. You’re telling a story; you need to bring your readers there, not make sure they know every last detail.
Visit the Locations in Your Story
If you can, it helps immeasurably to go to the places you’re writing about. Standing in the Alhambra where Columbus requested to sail to India, or visiting Lexington and Concord, or walking the streets of Prague where the Nazis marched, can help you visualize what your characters are seeing and experiencing and will help you write richer historical narratives. If you can, visit the location of your book, go to a museum, take a walking tour, interview someone who lived during the period you’re writing about. The information gleaned will only add to your story and create a good memory for you in the process!
Read About Your Time Period.
While there is a wealth of information on the internet, it helps to read books written by specialists in their fields. A book on the Tudors or the Wars of the Roses means so much more written by someone who has devoted their life’s work to the subject than just reading a summary on the internet. Don’t miss the opportunity to glean information from a historian who makes the past real for us. They will help you make the past real for your readers.
Connect to Your Audience.
What would your characters in ancient Rome feel that we in the modern world would also feel? How can you create an experience that allows your reader to connect with your characters? While the setting, the clothing, the speech, the food, may change from period to period, we have been and will continue to be human, with emotions and passions, and it’s your job as the writer to convey that.
Contrarywise, don’t try to modernize your historical characters. Let them live in their time and transport your readers to a different and foreign experience through them. I read historical fiction to imagine living in another time, and it helps to put myself there when the characters are believable. That means no modern slang, no ignoring common social norms, and no breaking societal rules without consequences appropriate to that time.
Another way to connect to your readers is the age-old rule: show, don’t tell. And never is this more appropriate than in historical fiction writing. Show your characters doing chores, making a meal, attending a social event, rather than just dumping the information at your reader’s feet and hoping they catch the significance.
What If I Get Something Wrong?
Don’t panic. It happens. For one, we can’t know history perfectly, for another, you can’t be a perfect author. Take the mistake as a lesson and strive for even better accuracy in your next work. If you’re confronted about the mistake, be honest and share what you would have changed to make the scene, character, or dialogue even better.
Common Historical Fiction Literary Devices
The most common literary device in historical fiction is creating a mix of real and fictional events. Using historical events can tell your reader where they are in history while fictional events can create empathy for your characters, and tell the reader why your character is important or interesting.
Your main character of a rich plantation owner’s wife could have a favorite brother die in the Battle of Bull Run, but could face a fictional slave rebellion on her home plantation while her husband is away at war. One shows her context in greater history, another shows her own interaction with a changing country and how it influences her and her family.
Another common literary device is involving your character in a common problem or issue of the time. Each period has certain societal issues that mark the period. Rights for women, colonizing of the Americas or Africa, the Reign of Terror in France. Each poses a chance to let your characters shine and tell your reader more about them and their time period.
Using our previous example, your character could be facing the loss of her plantation during the Civil War and how she reacts to the unpredictability and uncertainty of having her husband away fighting.
Resources to Help You Write Historical Fiction
If you’re not sure about whether or not a word was used or relevant in the period of your story, check out the Online Etymology Dictionary. You can look up anything and find all the details of its origins when it was first used, popularized, and if the definition has changed from year to year.
Also, be sure to check out the Historical Novel Society. Not only are they a great resource for time periods and accurate information, they can connect you to other historical fiction writers and help to promote historical fiction literature.
Do you write historical fiction? What are your tips and tricks for the genre? I’d love to hear them in the comments!